A new study by Pew Research has dubbed members of the millennial generation “detached” when it comes to U.S. politics. These 18- to 33-year-olds are increasing put off by organized politics and religion, less likely to identify as “patriotic” and hold significantly more liberal views on social issues than their parents or grandparents.
Political strategists, media outlets and talking heads have viewed these findings as a slam dunk for Democrats while ignoring other key facts of the report.
The millennial generation belongs to no one. These young adults may hold liberal views on social issues, but they are increasingly reluctant to identify with either party. With 50 percent of those polled describing themselves as political independents rather than Democrats, the survey highlights the individualistic nature of this generation.
Who else loves individualism? Conservatives and libertarians. Just last week the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an event attended by thousands of conservative millennials, hosted a panel discussion titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?”
The panel discussion focused mainly on same-sex marriage. Although the panelists could not agree on that issue, 61 percent of young Republicans now say they support same-sex marriage. The relative liberalism of these young conservatives doesn’t mean they will automatically align with the Democratic Party; it’s rather a sign of the times we live in.
A Republican candidate that weaves conservative economic policy together with libertarian social policy could win broad support among independent millennials. This may be one reason that Rand Paul, from the party’s libertarian wing, won CPAC’s 2016 presidential straw poll.
Even more worrisome for Democrats, just 31 percent of millennials see a great deal of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Democrats then must differentiate themselves from Republicans as a party that works towards improving the lives of young adults and the working class.
Here are a few suggestions from the Pew report:
Government: One of the most promising revelations to come from the report is that 53 percent of millennials favor a bigger government that provides more services—the highest of any generation—rather than a small one that offers fewer services. This is an opportunity for Democrats to discuss the benefits of a government that is directly engaged in creating jobs and reducing poverty.
Health Care: 54 percent of millennials believe it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure all Americans have health care coverage.
Aid for Young: Millennials are the only generation in which the majority believes programs benefiting the young should be prioritized over those benefiting the elderly. This includes universal prekindergarten, student debt relief and other programs that make college more affordable.
Social Security: At the same time, more than 60 percent of millennials oppose cuts to Social Security benefits. However, a surprising 51 percent also believe that they will never receive these benefits. Democrats must not only protect Social Security from being cut, but also strengthen it so young adults feel more confident in the system.
However, what millennials want most are jobs. Young adults are entering an anemic economy with little opportunity or growth. Youth unemployment has been in the double-digits for over 70 consecutive months and currently stands at 11.4 percent (not seasonally adjusted). Such high unemployment rates are costing the government almost $8.9 billion annually due to lost tax revenue and safety-net benefit costs.
As the best-educated cohort of young adults yet, two-thirds of those graduating are saddled with an average debt load of nearly $27,000. Such economic hardships have led many to delay marriage and other life decisions, such as buying their first home. In 2012, a record 21.6 million, or 36 percent, of millennials were living in their parents’ home. Not surprisingly, nearly 70 percent of all Americans say that today’s young adults face more economic challenges than those of previous generations.
With midterm elections only eight months away, and 2016 in sight, Democrats must develop a strategy to engage and keep this “detached” key demographic. Demography isn’t destiny. Democrats cannot run on a party platform of social inclusion alone. They must also reveal how conservative policies have rigged the economy against millennials, while putting forward a bold, progressive vision of change.